Believing and Belonging: Secularism and Religion in India

By Sebastian, J. Jayakiran | International Review of Mission, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Believing and Belonging: Secularism and Religion in India


Sebastian, J. Jayakiran, International Review of Mission


On the front lines of the world's conflicts, amid the noxious fumes of ancient hatreds, men and women gather in cratered roads and sniper alleys, and embrace. It was always Ormus Cama's hope that it might be possible for human beings -- for himself -- to transcend the frontier of skin, not to cross the colour line but to rub it out. (1)

Introduction: The nation and its discontents

During the last few months, India has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The world has witnessed with horror another outbreak of violence and brutality between members of different religious communities in the state of Gujarat, the same state from which the apostle of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, came. Neighbours have turned into fanatics; the home has turned from a place of refuge to a killing field; carefully fostered relationships and shared joys and sorrows have evaporated in a frenzy of bloodshed and hatred. Pent-up hatred has burst from behind the facade of civility, revealing the frightening face behind the mask. The iron under the velvet has been exposed.

This reality is all the more disturbing and troubling because India has been a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious land for more than three millennia. Indeed, India has been described as a "laboratory of dialogue", where people of different religious persuasions and faiths have lived and worked side by side for generations. This is not to deny the reality that there have been clashes and violence down the ages. There have been very violent episodes, not only in the past but also in recent history. For example, the partition of the country about fifty years ago led to one of the great human tragedies after the end of the second world war.

What sears the imagination are the pictures of burnt-out shops and homes, bodies lying twisted grotesquely, hands reaching out for help from relief camps, and the shallow proclamations of those in power who cynically play about with human lives, indifferent to the cost of human tragedy. (2)

The churches in India, which comprise the ancient Orthodox churches, the Catholic church, various Protestant denominations and a wide range of Pentecostal churches, are left bewildered and forlorn as they wonder how best to carry out their calling to be active and committed peace-makers in the present context. What does the proclamation of the gospel of reconciliation and peace mean in such a context? How can the churches co-operate in helping in relief and rebuilding measures? How can the churches display charity while speaking the truth in love to power?

The discourse on secularism

The reality of life in India has led to a flurry of analysis of the nation, religion and the life of the religious communities in Indian society at the turn of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. (3) The investigation and exploration of secularism in India has led to significantly different ways in which secularism is understood from how it is normally understood in the West. In the West, secularism has been understood to incorporate (more or less) the following elements:

* the attempt to separate religion and religious authorities from the structures of the state, including politics;

* the sphere of religion being recognized as essentially a private matter;

* the recognition of the reality of the declining importance of religion in public, civil and social life. (4)

Such an understanding led to the existence of a division between religion and the state, and the "separation of national identity from religious affiliations of any kind...Secularization not only polarizes national and religious identity; it also privatizes belief and renders it subordinate to the claims of reason, logic, and evidence, all of which are hence identified with the administrative rationality of the state and its institutions." (5)

If this is the classical understanding, then we need to note that, "Indians are sometimes scolded for misunderstanding secularism. …

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